THERE is no better book on the birth of American airpower than 2 A Few Great Captains. In fact, there is nothing comparable that includes the wide canvas and excellent personal detail of the struggle to emerge from the infantry and artillery ways of thinking that for so long hobbled the growth of military aviation in the United States. Yet Copp does no injustice to those who doubted the future of massed airpower because, as he illustrates so well throughout, there was little by which they could take the measure of the future in the air. Creaking fabric airplanes and steaming engines, cow pastures and crude instruments, and planes ill- equipped to fly at night and in poor weather do not an airpower force make. Copp succeeds in showing both sides of the coin.

The thread that weaves from the beginning of airpower, with the Wrights demonstrating their first military aircraft (to be kind in description) in 1908, until Germany slashed into Poland in September 1939, is in truth the title of his book: it is the few great captains who never relinquished their hold on where Army aviation should go, what it should be, and what it should do. The names of future military leaders of the Second World War are at center stage in Copp's outstanding presentation of their lean years, and there are many others who find their way into this well-written and much-needed historical study.

The second of Copp's two-volume study picks up the story of the few great captains grown into commanders of what would become the most powerful military air arm in the world. Copp says that this is the tale of "combat, political as well as military." It is that and more, and it is a talented writer who can make the conference table as commanding to the reader as the arena at 24,000 feet. Forged in Fire meets the need to tell so much more than the issues directly involving the captains become colonels and generals; Copp moves carefully and with much new information in a subject area that has received an avalanche of attention through the years. He blends it all into a coherent story. If there are moments when it feels that despite the author's efforts we are ready to drown in the the detail, it is because the story is immense.

There are some errors in Forged in Fire. For example, references to Chennault using P-40 fighters against the Japanese in China before December 7, 1941 simply are not true; Chennault's AVG P-40's fought their first air battle against the Japanese 13 days after Pearl Harbor was bombed. But such errors are few and do not affect the main thrust of Copp's American history, political and military.

In a field of study where courage, flying skills and a combat record are almost necessary ingredients for a biographical study, it is all the more laudable that Thomas M. Coffey would attempt in Hap a major work on a man did not have the occasion to exhibit them. Coffey has accomplished with great skill and research the story of the man who decided when, where and how the combat heroes would have their opportunity to command the attention of the future.

For the first time in anything I've ever read on the man, General Hap Arnold emerges from the printed page as a warm, appealing and real human being rather than the remote buddha-like figure of the most powerful leader of American air forces. Coffey digs deep into the makeup of Hap Arnold, and Arnold emerges from this scrutiny without being muddied. Behind the exterior of the only Air Force general ever to wear five stars, a real Arnold appears, bedeviled with a shattering fear of flying that kept him out of the air for years, a man torn between his principles and wrecking his military career, a man who gave his all to his country and (like so many others) paid dearly for that privilege through the hardships of the '20s and '30s.

It is through Hap Arnold's family that we come best to know the man, and the scenes and the vignettes are marvelous, warm and emotional. Coffey is less successful in his grasp of the major issues. But this isn't a major fault; he is painting the man, and a measure of his skill is that the reader finds himself eager to return to the man rather than the general. A few factual errors creep in here, too (the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk on December 10, 1941 and not two months later) and the war comes across as glossy veneer. But as a biographical portrait of Hap Arnold, it's easily the best book ever written on the man.

Wilbur H. Morrison wanted to touch all bases in Fortress Without a Roof, his interesting work on the combined bomber strikes of the United States and England against German targets in Europe and most especially within Germany's own borders. He has provided a broth of air missions and major policy decisions, moving quickly from one subject to another to carry his story through from 1942 to 1945 when an air-battered Germany collapsed. Morrison in his conclusion states of Germany that "one of the most powerful military nations was finally made impotent by airpower." The vote is far from in on that matter; at best it might be said that Germany was rendered impotent by the combined military power of her enemies.

In all the writing I have done on the Soviet military machine of World War II, not an inch has been gained without a struggle for accurate, cohesive and chronological information, let alone for accurate details with which to flesh out any such effort. In his new work, Red Phoenix, on the VVS--the Red Air Force of the Great Patriotic War--Von Hardesty has produced a brilliant study of Soviet military airpower from 1941 through the end of the war. There is no need to make comparisons with any other book on this subject because nothing else compares with Red Phoenix. It is clearly the result of a long and painstaking research effort, and Hardesty is a clear, concise and effective writer. In addition to a staggering wealth of detail on structure, policy, organization and statistical data (so badly needed), Hardesty also makes it clear that in the early days of the war the pilots and aircrews of Russia lacked a clear understanding of how to fight. Despite combat experience in Spain and Manchuria, Russian pilots were appallingly unequipped in every way to contest the wicked cutting edge of Germany's Luftwaffe. I have never seen it demonstrated better that if the Germans had not destroyed so many Russian planes on the ground then the Luftwaffe pilots would have run up astronomical scores in the air. In those terrible early days, what the Russian fighter pilots lacked the grievously outnumbered Russian bomber pilots had in surplus: courage, skill and a burning drive always to attack.

Hardesty lays the proper emphasis on Stalingrad, the Kuban, and Kursk as the pivotal axes in the air war, when Russia achieved numerical parity with its German enemy, as well as new qualitative edges in aircraft, tactics and aggressive pilots that finally was felt on the battlefield. Even the photographs in this book, and there are many, are a revelation; Hardesty has managed to find pictures of that period that we have never seen before. That war was monumental; so is this book.